The Easter season on the Mississippi Coast would be a lot less fishy without the crucifix fish.
Do you know you can fill Easter baskets with natural items found locally? With a bit of imagination and hunting you can stuff that legendary basket with Resurrection Ferns, sand dollars, new needle growth of the Loblolly pine trees, Spanish moss, even crawfish.
My favorite, however, is the crucifix fish. It's actually the head skeleton of the hardhead catfish, a saltwater fish also known locally as the “sailcat” or with tongue in cheek, the “tourist trout.”
If you've fished off our Mississippi Sound piers or in brackish backwaters, you've likely caught one of these unlovelies. Why do I call them that? If you've ever been jabbed by one of the sharp fin barbs, you'd understand. Ouch!
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Many believe this is not a tasty fish, but I've had marine biologists dispute that local belief and claim hardheads are as tasty as freshwater catfish.
But dead, that's how this catfish is best. Dead and skeletonized.
The hardhead, officially Ariopsis felis, is nicknamed for its hard. armor-like head plate. Once cleaned, however, it doesn't take much imagination to see a person stretched out on a cross, thus the crucifix fish name.
How long this fish has been part of Gulf Coast folklore is unknown. At some point, likely the mid-20th century, a man wrote a poem about the fish bone, immortalizing the fish. The poet was Conrad S. Lantz, and his words appeared on at least two different postcards with photographs of the skeleton.
Later, parts of the poem appeared – and continue to appear – with souvenir store gift boxes containing a real crucifix fish. This is what Lantz penned in his “Legend of the Crucifix Fish”:
“Of all the fishes in the sea,
Our Lord chose the lowly Sailcat
To remind us of his misery.
His body on the cross is outlined,
The hilt of the sword,
Which was plunged into his side,
Is clearly defined.
Look at the back of the fish's bone,
Where the Roman shield is shown.
When you shake the cross
You will hear the dice being tossed
For our Lord's blood stained dress.
Those who hear them
Will be blessed.”
The dice sound comes from the fish's otholiths, which resemble misshapen white marbles that keep the fish in balance. The rest of the interpretation of Jesus on the cross is left to your own imagination.
Mysterious poet, mysterious fish
Through the years, I've unsuccessfully tried to learn more about Lantz. Surprisingly, Florida State University's postcard archive does not explain who he is, although the collection includes two different postcard images of the crucifix fish and the Lantz poem. FSU, however, offers this insight:
“This legend is clearly based on region, originating in coastal areas where the fish live. If this legend were only told by word-of-mouth, it is unlikely that it would spread to more inland areas.
“However, since it was printed on a postcard, it can be sent to anywhere in the world and shared with people who may never see a crucifix fish or know what one is. In this way, postcards can be a simple tool used to share aspect of different cultures.”
I admit I am one of those word-of-mouth people who attempts to keep the story alive. For 20 years, whenever I shared my knowledge of Coast folklore to elementary school students, and likewise to older students of the Road Scholar/Elderhostel programs, I brought along examples of real crucifix fishes.
Unfortunately my biggest skeleton, about 7 inches long and found on the beach near my Biloxi property, was claimed by the Katrina mermaids. The ones I've found since then are smaller but the image of a person stretched out on a cross is not difficult to imagine.
Finding a crucifix fish
The fun of walking our beaches is looking for the unusual because the Coast is not blessed with good shelling. The good-luck crucifix fish is most often found after the Mississippi Sound shrimp season is open several months or after a storm.
Most shrimpers consider the hardhead a trash fish, so they throw it overboard and the sea's scavengers clean the fish to the bones. Trying to do that ourselves is possible but timely and smelly. Thank all the critters that make our work easier before the skeleton washes up on the beach.
With or without Easter crucifix legend, the hardhead is a fascinating fish to find — dead or alive.
“The male hardhead catfish carries eggs in his mouth until the little fish are hatched and then carries the fish until they are about three inches long,” this newspaper reported in March 1954 as one of those line-filler factoids once popular in print newspapers.
In color, the hardhead's scaleless skin is gray but in the sunlight it can be silvery with blue or green tones, and with a white underbelly. Their cat whiskers are six barbels under their chins and to the side of their mouths.
A whopper sailcat would be 27 inches and weigh 12 pounds, but expect most to be less than a foot long and a couple of pounds. They are likely the most-often-caught fish by anglers in near-shore southeastern Atlantic and Gulf waters.
Most rod-and-reelers know to carry a pair of pliers to break off the sharp barbs before unhooking them. With the voice of experience as a former shrimp boat deckhand, I can say, “Woe be the person stuck by a serrated barb of an overexcited hardhead.” Many have painfully learned a barb also can go through soft shoes.
Maybe that's a small price to pay for what these catfish leave behind when they die.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville, VA 22923.